Long Lives Well Lived #3/4 ( By TIME - jun. 14. 2003 )

Included in a "good lifestyle" is the avoidance of proven killers. Few of Asia's ancients smoke; if they once did, they kicked the vice long ago. Most will happily admit to taking a drink now and then, though, a habit whose benefits in moderation are well enough established that they are acknowledged even by such cautious institutions as the American Heart Association. The Hunza's are partial to "Hunza water"―potent wines made from the area's fruits such as grapes, mulberry and the ubiquitous apricot. Residents of Sunchang county in South Korea swear by their soju and makgoli, fiery rice spirits. Park Bok Dong, who is 101, attributes a major part of her continuing health (until a few years ago she was still working in her family's rice fields) to her practice of downing several daily shots of 50-proof soju. Okinawa, meanwhile, has awamori, a distilled rice spirit that has a whiff of kerosene in its bouquet but is much beloved on the island. "I used to like to drink a lot of awamori when I was young," smiles Asanori Takemura, a beaming Okinawan baker who recently turned 93. "I still like to, but these days I only take one glass a night―no more."

Indeed, dietary moderation is a consistent feature of the lives of the superwrinklies. Protein and animal fat typically play a minimal role in their menus. In Sunchang, for example, rice and boiled vegetables are a staple. "The white-rice-and-vegetables-dominated diet consists primarily of carbohydrate, while remaining low in fat," says Dr. Park Sang Chul, who heads the World Health Organization's aging-research center in Seoul and has spent three years studying the residents of Sunchang. "Low fat content is one of the more crucial keys toward longevity." The story is similar for the locals of Hunza Valley, says Khwaja Khan, a physician in the Hunza town of Karimabad who has treated many of the valley's eldest residents. The Hunza, Khan says, were cut off from the outside world for centuries by the 7,000-meter Himalayan peaks ringing the valley, and until recently were forced to subsist on a spartan menu of apricots, walnuts, buckwheat cakes and fresh vegetables. Many cross the century mark, and a few motor on for another 10 years or longer.

Living in relatively poor conditions in a village free of the industrialized world's dietary sludge―and miles from a fast-food restaurant―isn't required for long life. But eating habits influenced by scarcity appear to contribute to health. Says Chinese longevity expert Chen, the residents of Bama "are not starving, but for many years they weren't often full, either." In Okinawa, researchers found their subjects ate about 20% fewer calories than the Japanese average―which in turn is about 20% lower than the average in the U.S. According to Dr. Makoto Suzuki, leader of the study of Okinawan elders and one of Willcox's co-authors, a restricted-calorie diet might reduce the harmful effects of free radicals―molecules that occur naturally in the body during biochemical reactions but that can damage cells and are implicated in most of the deleterious effects associated with aging, including cancers and cardiovascular diseases.

Happily, living to an advanced age doesn't depend entirely on self-denial. Researchers are also trying to pinpoint particular foods consumed in each of the regions that can help avert the diseases and disabilities associated with aging. The people of Bama, for example, cook with oils derived from hemp and the fruit of tea bushes. These oils are rich in unsaturated fat, vitamin E and vitamin B1―antioxidant nutrients believed to contribute to a healthy cardiovascular system, says Chen, as well as helping prevent certain types of cancers. Suzuki says Okinawans do most of their stir-frying with canola oil, which has been widely shown to protect the body against free radicals.

The Okinawan elders who were part of Suzuki's study got most of their protein from fish, which provides another so-called good fat: omega-3. This oil is particularly prevalent in fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, whose established heart-protecting properties are considered by researchers to be an important reason that Japan's incidence of heart disease is one-third that of the U.S.'s. Okinawans have about one-fifth as many heart attacks as North Americans, Suzuki says, and when they do, they are twice as likely to survive.

The differences in rates of cancer deaths are similarly stunning. In Okinawa annually, there are an average of six breast-cancer deaths per 100,000 people; that rate is five times lower than in the U.S. The incidence of prostate cancer is seven times lower than in the U.S. Suzuki's team attributes the differences in part to Okinawans' very high intake of substances called flavonoids, relatively little-understood compounds that appear to help prevent cancer by neutralizing the destructive effect of free radicals. "Okinawa's national dish is a stir-fry called chample," says Suzuki. "The exact recipe varies from house to house but the basic ingredients are always there: tofu, soya beans and goya [a local variety of bitter gourd]. Those three are all very high in flavonoids as well as other compounds like isoflavones, saponins and vitamins B and C that provide protection against free radicals."

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